Heinrich von Kleist Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Kleist was one of the most important literary figures in the development of the German Novellen of poetic realism. Although he is better known in Germany than in English-speaking countries, he is usually acknowledged to have been ahead of his time, a forerunner of the modern literature of the grotesque, usually associated with Franz Kafka a century later.

Early Life

Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born on October 18, 1777, in Frankfurt an der Oder, the first son of a Prussian officer, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane Ulrike Pannwitz. By the time he was fifteen, both of his parents had died and he, without much enthusiasm, had become a soldier. Although little is known about his childhood, what evidence there is available from letters and other sources indicates that he was bored and unhappy with his life as a soldier; although he was promoted to lieutenant, he resigned from the army in 1799 to enter the University of Frankfurt. While there for three semesters, Kleist threw himself wholeheartedly into his studies of mathematics, physics, and philosophy.

Also while at the university, Kleist met and became engaged to Wilhelmine von Zenge, the daughter of an army officer. His letters from this period suggest that he was an extremely serious young man, introspective and concerned with finding fulfillment in his life by means of intellectual pursuits. Even his love affair with Wilhelmine was characterized by his efforts to make her into a kind of idealized soul mate, an embodiment of intellectual and moral beauty. In letters to his sister and his fiancée, he talks of his “life plan,” a rational pursuit that would prevent him from being merely a puppet at the mercy of fate.

Yet Kleist’s hopes for a purely rational plan of life were crushed in 1801 by what his biographers refer to as his “Kantian crisis.” In a letter to Wilhelmine, he declared that as a result of reading Immanuel Kant all of his faith in rationality as a basis for leading a purposeful life had been destroyed, and his anguish at facing a life governed by chance, fate, and meaninglessness had become almost unbearable. In what some have called an attempt to escape his intellectual torment, Kleist left Frankfurt and began traveling, first to Paris and then to Switzerland, where he became fascinated with ideas learned from Jean-Jacques Rousseau about leading the “natural life.” Because his fiancée refused to go along with his new enthusiasm to lead the simple life of a peasant, their engagement was broken the following year. It was while living in Switzerland that Kleist began writing and thus launched his short-lived career.

Life’s Work

Some of his biographers suggest that Kleist’s literary career began because he was attempting to compensate for his failure to achieve his intellectual goals by succeeding immediately as a writer. While living on a small island on the Lake of Thun in Switzerland, he completed his drama Die Familie Schroffenstein (1803; The Schroffenstein Family, 1916) and began work on Der zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930) and Robert Guiskard (1808; English translation, 1962). Although he began two of his best-known short fictions at this time, “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (1811; “The Engagement in Santo Domingo,” 1960) and “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (1807; “The Earthquake in Chile,” 1946), he had been greatly encouraged to continue his work on Robert Guiskard by the high praise for an early fragment of the play received from Christopher Martin Wieland, one of the most respected literary figures in Germany at the time.

For reasons known only to the tormented mind of Kleist, when he returned to Paris he burned the fragment of Robert Guiskard, which Wieland had said was worthy of Sophocles and William Shakespeare. Stung by his own self-imposed sense of failure, he joined Napoleon I’s forces, which were ready for an invasion of England, perhaps hoping, as some biographers suggest, that death in battle would redeem his failure in a glorious way. Shortly thereafter, however, he was sent back to Germany and hospitalized for a nervous breakdown.

After recovering, Kleist obtained a post with the government in the Ministry of Finance. During this time, he continued to write, finishing...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The tragedy of Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist’s brief life was determined by the extremely limited role of the minor aristocracy in eighteenth and nineteenth century Prussia. Originally semi-independent rulers in a feudal sense, the landed aristocracy moved up into a small court nobility supported by investments—or down, as with Kleist’s family, into a military caste. A Junker was not permitted to practice law or medicine, to engage in trade, or to join the middle class in any manner. Kleist, sickened with military brutality, resigned his commission after seven lost years. Kleist wrote that he had been constantly troubled by the inevitable conflict between his duty as an officer and his duty as a human being. The soldiers seemed little more than slaves to Kleist, the famed Prussian discipline a living monument to tyranny. Giving up a military career was synonymous with giving up membership in the Junker class, at least for the landless Kleist. Therefore, when at the age of twenty-two he became a student of government and philosophy at Frankfurt an der Oder, he began writing his name without the aristocratic “von.” In giving up his military career, Kleist was giving up his heritage, his pride, his class, his future security, and even a portion of his name.

The career for which Kleist was preparing himself during his student years was that of a government trade administrator. The closing of two doors ended Kleist’s hopes for such a career....

(The entire section is 489 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Following the military tradition of his family, Heinrich von Kleist joined the Prussian army at the age of fifteen, but he resigned his commission in 1799, declaring that he had wasted seven valuable years. He returned to Frankfurt an der Oder, the city of his birth, where he entered the university. Kleist plunged himself into a rigorous study of mathematics and philosophy, believing that through virtuous discipline and knowledge, one could achieve moral perfection and happiness. He became engaged to a general’s daughter, Wilhelmine von Zenge, and began teaching her his eudaemonistic precepts by letter. In 1801, Kleist announced the total collapse of his convictions, which he claimed resulted from reading Kant’s philosophy. This so-called Kant crisis set Kleist forth on the erratic and intense search for meaning that was to characterize the remaining eleven years of his life.

Kleist traveled to France, hoping to accomplish “something good, absolutely.” When his decision to become a Swiss farmer came to naught, he began to write. In 1803, he outlined several plays and finished a draft of The Feud of the Schroffensteins. Favorable reviews of the play encouraged him, and he probably outlined several stories as well. Kleist’s exhilaration soon gave way to despondency; he broke his engagement, journeyed through Switzerland and Italy, and returned to Paris, where he burned the fragment of Robert Guiskard. He then left Paris to join...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist was born October 18, 1777, the fifth and oldest son of a Prussian army officer. Kleist’s family had served in the army for generations, providing the Prussian monarchy with a supply of officers over the years. Kleist himself entered the Prussian army in 1792, after a youth marked by spotty education. He served in the 1796 campaign on the Rhine but retired from the service in 1799, much to the chagrin of his family. The next year he studied law and philosophy at the Viadrina University, soon moving to a position with the ministry of finance in Berlin.

Over the next decade, Kleist wandered about Europe, sometimes staying briefly in one place before moving restlessly on to another city....

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Heinrich von Kleist (klist) was born in 1777 into an aristocratic family of Prussian army officers. When he entered the army himself at fourteen years of age, after attending a French Calvinist school in Berlin, his mother and father had already died. He saw action in the Coalition Wars in 1794 and was promoted before resigning. His ambition led him to study disparate subjects at universities in Frankfurt-on-the-Oder and Königsberg, to travel widely, to live a romantic life in the Swiss countryside, and even to try to enlist in Napoleon I’s army in 1803. That last unsuccessful adventure preceded a mental and physical breakdown from which he took six months to recover. In view of his background and the turbulence of this era of...

(The entire section is 580 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Given the fragile order in society and uncertainty of human knowledge in Heinrich von Kleist’s works, neither consistent rational plans nor passionate abandon, neither hesitation nor single-minded pursuit, are guaranteed to succeed. However, Kleist seems to admire those who risk all and who disregard boundaries set up by societies or governments. Trust, forgiveness, and understanding can allay disaster in Kleist’s comedies. In the epic struggle between the unusual individual hero and the world, moral judgments are problematic, and subjective experience gives the key to understanding.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Heinrich von Kleist Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A contemporary of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and of the German Romantics, Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist (klist) was an outstanding German dramatist and writer of novellas. He was born in 1777 in Frankfurt an der Oder, the oldest son of a Prussian military man, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, and his second wife, Juliane von Pannwitz.

Kleist received his first education from theologian Christian Ernst Martini, who later became a close friend. He suffered the loss of his father in 1788 and, shortly after he entered the Prussian army in 1792, the loss of his mother. During his military years, he took part in the Rhine campaign and was promoted to lieutenant. In 1799 he resigned his commission, stating in a letter to...

(The entire section is 942 words.)